A DAY IN THE COUNTRY: What it Means to be an American

Like most Americans, I’m relieved Obama was re-elected.  But there are years of undoing both policy and social mores that still need to happen.  Cultural beliefs and government programs continue to support the stranglehold Wall Street still has on our country.

This didn’t happen overnight – it officially began with Ronald Reagan.  Reagan was the first president to really heed the far right’s cries for supply-side economics:  the name for fiscal policy that gives corporations and the superrich tax breaks in the name of expanding the economy.  Even GHW Bush called it “voodoo economics.”  But that didn’t matter.  Reagan managed to deliver his message concurrently with homespun homilies and simple, hard-working values, erstwhile stripping the homespun and hardworking Americans from having any chance to rise to the top.  Thirty years hence, the middle class is in a serious decline and the gap between the rich and the poor has widened over the years.

People’s expectations have changed too.  Most Americans coming into the job market today have no real hope of ever having a home, the ratio between housing prices and salaries is just too great. We also don’t expect to keep our jobs for as long – nor do we expect to have solid benefits like health insurance and severance packages.

This week, we experienced what it’s like to be real Americans. My husband got laid off for the second time this year, without severance or health benefits.  For the second time, we have to scramble for new employment and health insurance. Scramble because like most Americans we live paycheck to paycheck.  Running to Stand Still says the famous U2 song of our generation.

I guess I thought by the time we were in our 40s, some of this scrambling would be over.  Maybe it’s our fault for being in unstable, creative professions. But since we are educated and hard-working, I look outside us as well.   Downsizing has become a national pastime. It’s part of the dominance of Wall Street to see downsizing as positive, and a reason to raise a company’s stock price.  “Shareholder value” though doesn’t mean value at all – it means short term gains in exchange for long term volatility – the booms and busts we’ve seen in the last 30+ years. That means:  joblessness, extreme market ups and downs, and yes, widening the gap between the rich and poor. Ironically, it was Reagan who said:  A recession is when your neighbor loses his job; a depression is when you do.  What about when you lose your job twice, Mr President?

Just because the election is over, doesn’t mean our problems are solved.   When we champion capitalism and democracy, what are we talking about?  Let’s agree on some terms.  Our current system has been gamed by the rich and powerful.  Some have described it as “corporate capitalism.” That means you need money to have a voice in government.  Check the number of K street lobbyists if you don’t believe me. The mythology surrounding the founding of this country is inspiring and powerful – it’s about everyone having an equal chance, regardless of his station.  How can we maintain that opportunity when the person with the most money always wins?

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